Why Bad Blogs Get More Readers (An Accidental, Secret Recipe for Massive Web Traffic)

I've often said that it bugs me to see a good blog go unread. It's one reason why I run Friday Links posts: it's my own small effort to put good stuff I find in front of more readers.

But today I want to ask the exact opposite question: why do certain really bad blogs get so much traffic?

An obvious example is The Food Babe, a site with an intriguing (and unintentional) recipe for wide readership. Deep down, we're all vaguely suspicious of modernity, technology and scary-sounding long words. If you play off these fears, worried readers come running to your site. Add in a conspiracy theory here and there for good measure, and things you write start to sound rhetorically persuasive.

Notice I said rhetorically persuasive, not scientifically persuasive. Or logically persuasive. But this is the key to the secret recipe! If you write something scientifically or logically laughable but rhetorically persuasive, you quickly generate a second-order readership. A second crew of readers, readers more competent in logic and basic scientific principles, will point out the scientific and logical flaws in your argument. Often with dripping condescension.

Then, the original readers, the credulous ones, argue back. After all, nobody likes being condescended to.

So, if there's such a thing as a typical Food Babe reader, it would break down into two general types:

1) Credulous first-order readers looking for new things to fear.
2) Second-order readers astounded at how dumb other people are.

So here's your business model: write posts for the first group, but make those posts unrigorous enough to attract the second group too. If you follow this secret recipe correctly, you get viral posts, exploding traffic stats, and some really entertaining comment wars.

This might be the only profitable business model in blogging--perhaps in all of online media. And it certainly helps explain the ubiquitous outrage porn, worry porn and political handwringing porn suffusing our overall cognitive environment these days.

And since fear-mongering and conspiracy-mongering are particularly effective forms of rhetoric, The Food Babe really cleaned up for a while there. That is, until her scientific incompetence became a little too obvious. When it got out that she wrote (but later deleted without comment or explanation) a post on the radiation risks of microwave ovens (it contained quotes like this one: "when you stand in front of a radar device you will start perspiring/cooking from the inside out, just like food is cooked in the microwave oven."), her already-tenuous credibility met its end. Fortunately for us, the internet never forgets. Eventually, goofily unscientific people get found out and exposed, even if they do try to scrub their sites of the most scientifically hilarious things they've said.

But! Some bloggers use these embarrassing things about themselves to grow their traffic even more. One of Tim Ferriss's best business insights back in the early days of SEO was to make sure he captured pageview traffic from the keywords "Tim Ferriss Scam."

So, he wrote a post titled, naturally, "Tim Ferriss Scam!" Interestingly, it doesn't rank as highly as it used to, illustrating yet another challenge of blogging: the ceaseless competition for traffic, everywhere, all the time, for any and all keywords.

Ironically, Ferriss' Tim Ferris Scam! post actually contains some excellent ideas (the quotes from Scott Boras and Epictetus for example), and it's a smart post from the standpoint of using a writer's time, since it mostly contains meta-content, content reused and retreaded from other posts and sources. Talk about turning your detractors to your advantage.

By the way, Ferriss has had a few Food Babe moments of his own. Readers here at CK will remember my extended criticism of the flaws in his book The Four Hour Chef, for example. Or his uproariously implausible post: From Geek to Freak: How I Gained 34 lbs. of Muscle in 4 Weeks.[1]

Much like a typical Food Babe post, From Geek to Freak is an (unintended?) masterpiece of meta-conversation. With its waxed and spray-tanned before-and-after photos and its 1,300 (and growing) comments arguing over whether it's possible or impossible to gain 34 pounds of muscle in a month, it all becomes a twisted game.

His game, that is. We're the suckers, expending our attention and our finite cognitive resources. We argue for him even when we argue against him. Savvy readers ought to be able to see a parallel--a direct parallel--that's been playing out over the past several months in our political media.

The Koontz Principle of Online Incompetence
Let's get back to the [Your name here] Scam post writing technique for a moment. Vani the Food Babe did one of these posts too, writing her own "Food Babe: Scam" post, and it's a veritable tour de force in unaware rhetoric [2] that drives home an interesting, if depressing point: the internet rewards incompetence. Write something incompetent, and people will read it, get mad, comment, and link back to you. Then, incompetent people read those comments, get mad, comment more, and link back to you. Competent people respond, comment more, write about you, link back to you, your search engine ranking goes higher and higher, and so on. Rinse, repeat... and sell ads!

If we carry this to its ultimate logical conclusion, we arrive at a useful general principle. Let's call it The Koontz Principle of Online Incompetence: The most divisive and incompetent content tends to rise to the top of all search rankings. Think of it as an informational equivalent of The Peter Principle.[3]

So, in a way, maybe it's not a bad thing that sites like The Food Babe no longer attract the attention and profits they used to, and likewise, maybe it's a good sign that our biggest media institutions--as they play the same twisted game with far greater resources--are losing readers and money too.


Footnotes:
[1] Glass houses disclaimer: I've written plenty of posts that are bad, stupid, boring, unrigorous, wrong, etc., and I've also generated arguments between readers arguing for (and sometimes even against!) my incompetence. I try to do the best I can here at CK, but believe me, I come up short plenty of times too.

[2] Techniques include but are not limited to: using mean tweets against her (this is the so-called "tone fallacy": arguing that if you're not nice, your criticism is therefore disqualified); claiming "it's not about me" in a post self-evidently 100% about her, and using rhetorically powerful (but logically vacuous) phrases like "obviously, some powerful entities in the chemical and food industries have a financial incentive to try to discredit me" and "The bottom line is that many of these people who use this argument to discredit me, don't want the truth, regarding our food supply, coming out." One could easily write a satire using statements like these. Hey, wait: somebody already did!

[3] The Peter Principle states that every employee gets promoted up through an organization until he reaches a level where he's incompetent. Anyone working at any large corporation has seen this principle at work, and it is why, in the longer run, large organizations often tend toward generalized incompetence.


READ NEXT: Did Newark Mayor Cory Booker Really *Try* With His Food Stamp Challenge?


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